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Roger Hilton and the fall and rise of the female nude


Tate St Ives Autumn 2006


There are many ways to judge an artistís importance. Probably the most reliable and immediate is to consider their workís popularity with the public. In the case of a gallery like the Tate, that means its ability to pull in an audience, and to a certain extent, shift merchandise.

Longer-term importance would seem to hinge more on an artistís influence on younger generations of artists Ė and such longevity in turn depends on the extent to which the work is able to survive ever-changing views about what art is or should be.

Hiltonís art, as shown in St Ives in Autumn 2006, is notable for having a narrow range of concerns. These are primarily formal, and linked to the relationship between eroticism, as embodied in the female nude, and abstract painting.

Whilst abstract painting has pretty much remained a constant since the beginning of the last century, the depiction of the female nude has been a contested area for several decades: very sensitive to the vicissitudes of sexual politics, which have shifted year by year.  Hiltonís own influence has waxed and waned as a result.

In the forties and fifties when Hilton and most of the other St Ives artists came to prominence, much international art was drab and anguished, influenced to be so by existentialism and the aftermath of the second world war. Images of women that were in the least bit erotic were few and far between.

Frost, Lanyon and Hilton in their different ways injected a note of optimism and energy into post-war abstraction, which, given Hilton's Dionysian impulses, led naturally to his joyful depictions of women (picture above), which at times bordered on the scatological and pornographic. In some ways, in retrospect, he can be seen to have been kicking against the respectable Apollonian qualities conspicuous in many of the other St Ives artists, and was introducing overt images of women into his work around the same time as Tom Wesselmanís American nude series in the states, and Allen Jonesí fetishistic pop in the UK.

In the seventies and eighties views of what was considered permissible in this respect changed, and the use of the female nude, particularly by male artists was condemned as patriarchal by feminists. For a while the female nude only really appeared as part of a critique of academic fine art, or in the guise of female performance artists like Marina Abramovic and Valie Export (whose work featuring crotchless trousers ĎGenital panic: action pantsí (picture above) has the best title ever for a work of art). During this period Hiltonís nudes instead of looking playful or erotic, looked out-dated, chauvinistic and a bit embarrassing.

There was, however a tidal-wave of male artistís images of the female nude in the 90s. What had been repressed during two theory-laden decades, returned in ways that were even more aggressively sexual than 60s pop-art, influenced by the increasingly pervasive presence of porn, and also by a need perceived on the part of artists to sensationalise and thereby draw attention to their work. Richard Prince appropriated images of bikerís girlfriends for his famous photoseries, Marcus Harvey painted rather misogynistic images of Ďreaders- wivesí (above), Chris Ofiliís depicted a black virgin mary (right), and John Currin painted women with impossibly large breasts (below). All used sexualised images of women with greater or lesser degrees of irony and self-consciousness.

Like Hilton there was, for many of them, a link between sexuality and luscious and slightly fevered paint handling Ė certainly in the case of Marcus Harvey, and also in the case of female artists Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown (below).

These shifts in taste and perception, which have really occurred in the few years that Tate St Ives has been open, have allowed us to look at Hilton again with less embarrassment or guilt, and recognise strong links between his own aesthetic and that of a number of artists of our own time.

However Hiltons work shares less with contemporary depictions of the female nude than appears at first glance. Contemporary male artists do not tend to paint from life but are more likely to borrow images of women from magazines or the internet. In the process these women become larger than life: caricatures or fantasies that have little in common with reality. In the intervening years, and possibly as a result of feminism in the 70s, it seems to have become more acceptable for male artists to use images that have already become detached or alienated from their subject in this way. This may be because the artist can at some level claim to be offering a critique of the process of representing the female nude and therefore protect themselves from charges of being exploitative.

Whatever the reason, and considering the Hiltonís show at Tate St Ives this Autumn, it was therefore not other male artists who came to mind, but female artists who seem to be better able to depict the nude with the frankness and immediacy that comes with drawing Ďfrom lifeí. The exemplar here is Tracy Emin (left). Tracys confessional work, especially her etchings, with their impoverished diaristic sexual content, seem to be very close in spirit to Hiltonís drawings Ė particularly the series in the Apse, and to his late gouaches. In fact both also draw on a deep well of humanity, in the form of biography and lived experience, that is lacking in much contemporary art.


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